When an anti-Islamic loner explodes a bomb outside a government building, killing eight people, then travels to a nearby island where he guns down 69 more, we naturally view that man as a dangerous lunatic. His paranoid tirades against multi-culturalism and “Eurabia”, along with his grandiose view of himself as crusading member of the fictional Knights Templar, make him seem delusional and psychotic — someone entirely “other” and so unlike ourselves that he might as well belong to a different species. We would never do anything so cruel and violent, of course, and we find it virtually impossible to identify or empathize with this man in any way.
And yet, Anders Breivik is a member of the human race, just as we are. His emotional states and thought processes in fact differ only in degree and intensity from some of our own. I invite you to join me in an exploration of this troubled man’s psychology — not in order to create sympathy for him, not to blame society or violent online gaming platforms for his actions, not to argue on behalf of clemency from the court, but rather to learn something about ourselves and to make “insanity” seem a little less strange and “other”. For what it’s worth, my personal view is that Anders Breivik is so psychically damaged, so emotionally troubled that he will remain a danger to society while alive and should be permanently isolated to eliminate the possibility of his doing more violence.
Has anyone ever hurt your feelings badly or deeply wounded your self-esteem? Perhaps a lover you cared for broke off your relationship and “dumped” you. Or a friend decided he or she no longer wanted to know you and stopped returning your calls. Maybe you were summarily fired from your job. Did you then indulge in occasional fantasies of revenge? I don’t mean violent revenge, but rather of triumphing over the people who hurt you and “proving them wrong.” You and your ex happen to show up at the same party; you’re on the arm of someone even better-looking or more successful, and you relish the look of regret and longing in the eyes of your former lover. You’re at the center of a glamorous group of new people who all look down upon and exclude your former friend. Established at a new, better-paying job, you run into former co-workers at a bar and they feel envious of your unexpected success. They were obviously wrong about you.
These fairly typical responses to shame and humiliation involve the denial of shame; they embody a psychological defense against an experience felt to be almost unbearably painful. Because rejection often makes us feel like a “loser” and the one who spurned us a “winner”, we long to reverse those roles. We hurt and would like to make the other person hurt instead; on occasion, we might even fantasize about inflicting physical pain. Because we’re able to think, with our “reality-testing” intact, we usually don’t act on those fantasies. We normally don’t respond to unbearable hurt with physical violence.
Anders Breivik struggles with shame. I don’t mean the kind of shame that comes from rejection, or from parental and societal messages that instill a sense of inferiority. I mean the deep-rooted shame that embodies the felt knowledge that you are damaged, different from other people, broken and (you fear) beyond repair. His shame arises not from rejection but from early and pervasive emotional damage. I don’t propose to “psychoanalyze” him, but the little information I have is telling: his parents divorced when he was only a year old, he had a troubled relationship with his father that left him feeling “feminized”. A social services report written when he was four expressed concerns for his mental health, suggesting that he be removed from parental care. Early damage, lots of it, instilling (as it always does) a sense of basic and profound shame.
In order to escape that excruciating shame, Anders Breivik takes flight into grandiose fantasy. He’s not a “loser” but a member of a secret and powerful organization whose aim is nothing less than the salvation of Western culture. He’s not weak and ineffective but powerfully destructive — so powerful he metes out death like some kind of avenging angel. These fantasies differ in degree from our own more pedestrian fantasies of revenge but they’re related in nature. Beyond the extreme violence, what distinguishes Breivik from the rest of us is his weak connection to reality. His defenses are so powerful, his projections and distortions so pervasive, that he can’t distinguish between the real and the imaginary.
He also wants badly to be admired. Regardless of whether you agree with the findings of his second psychiatric evaluation, that he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, you can readily see his desire for attention, his wish to be admired, his longing to impress people with his power and devotion to the cause. It’s a difference of degree, not of kind, from our own wish to be admired or envied by others following an experience of humiliation.
We might also find traits in common with Anders Breivik in the area of black-and-white thinking. Take a polarizing issue that inspires vehement emotion, where you feel passionately identified with one side. Some possibilities: the right-to-choose vs. the right-to-life; laissez-faire economics vs. government as enforcer of social justice; gay marriage. It might even be the threat posed by “Islamo-fascisim” which so troubled Breivik. When we feel passionately committed to one side in a debate, we tend to demonize those on the other. They become caricatures: Hateful religious fanatics who want to impose their faith upon us. Baby-killers. Ruthless corporations. Empty-headed tree-huggers. When emotion runs high, especially in complex areas that pose great social challenges, we often resort to black-and-white thinking in order to “simplify” the issues. We are good, the other side is bad. Most of us have an issue that quickly eliminates all nuance from our thinking.
Anders Breivik has a very polarized view of his world: us (the Christian right) vs. them (the multi-culturalists, the Islamo-fascists). He sees himself as an agent of good; his devotion to the cause of saving Western culture justifies violence of all kinds, including murder. In both the emotional and intellectual sense, he has a mind completely without nuance. His world view consists of two-dimensional good guys battling cartoon villains, which of course sounds insane; on the other hand, it has elements in common with the kind of black-and-white thinking you see everywhere, every day. He lacks good “reality-testing”, as we say; his defenses are more powerful, more psychotic in nature, but his emotional struggles have roots in common with our own.